First published in the Catholic Herald. Please subscribe
Ex-Anglicans have seen these tricks played on the Church before, writes Gavin Ashenden
In a recent article in another Catholic publication, the prominent Catholic intellectual and biographer of Pope Frances, Austin Ivereigh has expressed anxieties about the influence of ex-Anglicans offering advice on the Synodal process to the journalist Christopher Lamb.
Austin Ivereigh himself is much invested in the Synodal Way. He has been one of the authors putting together a synthesis of the views of this country’s experience. He is alarmed at the contributions to the report by ex-Anglicans who have been warning about the dangers of consulting people who don’t know or practice the faith.
In presenting and justifying Ivereigh’s concerns, Lamb claims for those invested in the success of the Synodal Way nothing less than the direct presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
“The report is not an opinion survey or a sociological exercise but a Holy Spirit-listening exercise that urges the People of God – lay people, clergy and bishops – to continue ‘walking together’ along the synodal path, in spite of the pitfalls.”
This raises, for all of us, the question of whether we can tell the difference between a listening exercise, and a “Holy Spirit-listening” exercise?
Critical to development of confidence in the process, the proponents of this approach don’t explain how they can be so sure that the proposed conversations and listening exercises can be guaranteed the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, that’s where the ex-Anglicans believe they can offer some help. For in the world of Anglicanism, an essential part of the leftist sociological take-over of the church was almost always accompanied by the promise that the Holy Spirit was very much part of the project. It turned out, at the end of the process that the progressives had in fact mistaken the spirit of the age for the Holy Spirit. Having seen the ploy used once to such divisive and destructive effect, the ex-Anglicans are hoping to share their experience of the danger this constitutes to the integrity of the Church.
The problem seems to stem from the fact that the Synodal Way has adopted a theological world view of a particular kind. In the arena of historic spirituality we might distinguish a variety of different aspects of the ecclesial community; clergy and lay, religious and secular; obedient and disobedient; faithful and unfaithful; observant and nominal; ethical and amoral; pietists and activists, etc
But the Synodal Way has, if you are a supporter, configured (or if you are a critic, rigged) the conversation in advance by imposing the categories of “excluded” and “included”. These are intended to be variants of those who have power and those who have none. A perspective more faithful to the traditions of the Church would express more interest in the categories of those who did or did not have faith rather than those who did or did not have power.
We have been moved out of the arena of Christian spirituality into that of Marxist power-play. The Synodal Way has become a study in “alienation”. We are back to the world of identity politics where the group you belong to takes precedence over your personal virtue (or lack of it). If you are marginalised, alienated, excluded, then this is a conversation for you.
The handbook or vademecum for the Synodal process puts it like this:
“Widespread participation is an important part of the diocesan process, with no one being excluded. “We must personally reach out to the peripheries, to those who have left the church, those who rarely or never practice their faith, those who experience poverty or marginalization, refugees, the excluded, the voiceless, etc.”
This rather gives the game away. These are sociological categories, not ecclesial or spiritual ones. How does someone who has deliberately turned their back on the church, or refuses to practice their faith constitute the Church? Do they have no agency, no will, no responsibility?
But in the Marxist intincted world of sociology, responsibility and choice are less important than victimhood. And the spirit of sociology requires them to be included in order to remedy their alienation and their powerlessness. And so the categories of interest are “poor, marginalised, refugees, excluded and voiceless”. This is more Marx than Jesus, more zeitgeist than Holy Spirit.
Does it matter whether or not the orbit of those excluded goes beyond the confines of the Church? The authors of the Synodal Way don’t think it does. It describes the ambitions of the listening process to include”
“the wider community, particularly those on the margins of society, as well as Christians and non-Christians.”
This is an important factor. Because Austin Ivereigh insists that the problem with the ex-Anglicans is that they just don’t understand that Catholicism involves a conversation amongst those who constitute the sensus fidelium.
“The synod process in England and Wales has shown that many former Anglicans have trouble grasping the nature of Catholic synodality, which is more akin to processes of ecclesial discernment than the governance of the Church of England, which has powers delegated by the UK Parliament.”
“While Church of England synods are “deliberative”, in the Catholic tradition, synods are consultative, with decisions taken by the bishops with and under the Pope after careful listening to the Spirit speaking through the sensus fidelium.”
He is right, of course. There is no legislative process involved in this Synod. But the Anglicans, despite Mr Ivereigh’s anxieties, can tell the difference between consultation and legislation. It’s not very hard.
They are in fact asking questions that pertain very much to the sensus fidelium.
Thankfully, it is defined in the Catechism.
“The supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”
What Mr Ivereigh has yet to explain is how those who don’t practice, who have left the Church, and indeed are non-Christians, constitute the sensus fidelium the Catechism is referring to?
The fact is that the ex-Anglicans have seen this trick played on the Church before. It is part of the spirituality of the progressives. Very simply put they wrap up quasi-Marxist content in a spiritual comfort blanket , and then talk a lot about the Holy Spirit.
This is how Cardinal Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, does it. He explained the main objectives and characteristics of the synodal process, describing it as “a spiritual process” that requires listening to the Holy Spirit as well as to each other.”
Prominent amongst those offering warnings have been Monsignor Nazir-Ali. With exactly the sensus fidelium in mind, he addressed the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences on 28 October in Bangkok, Thailand. He suggested that synodal consultations have their limits, pointing out that those being consulted “need to be catechised, perhaps even evangelised”, otherwise, how exactly do they constitute the Sensus Fidelium?
A quasi-therapeutic, inclusive, social justice exercise invoking the zeitgeist by offering empowerment and inclusion to the radically marginalised and voiceless would be an excellent sociologically coherent exercise in political relevance and justice-seeking. The Synodal Way offers to lay the foundations for just such a process.
The Ex-Anglicans would want to reassure Mr Ivereigh that not only can they tell the difference between legislation and consultation, but that they want to humbly offer a warning.
Having seen a similar process of ‘walking together in consultative mode framed in a sociological narrative’ tried before in a previous context, the outcome was division, demoralisation, spiritual impoverishment, theological incoherence, diminishment of faith, apostasy and a fatal impairment of the Church. And loving the Catholic Church as they do, and faithful to her integrity as they are, they would have it spared the same outcome.